The News Media’s Failure Of Imagination Is Killing Our Democracy

Putting things together can be super challenging when you have zero imagination.

How long did it take the news media – a profession built in theory upon the collection of facts – to decide that a man who lied to them every single day was a liar? By lie number three, any reasonable person would have begun to see a pattern. By lie number ten, that pattern would have been a lens – a way to see the liar based solely on the fact that they lie too often to ever be given the benefit of any doubt. Ah, but. “He’s the president!” our news media told themselves. The office is the office even if the guy holding office doesn’t treat it that way. And how long did it take our news media to figure that out – that Donald Trump doesn’t see the presidency in political terms, he sees it the way a mafia boss sees a territory he’s claimed for himself. Actually, our news media to this day doesn’t see Donald Trump that way – as a criminal who’s inexplicably walking around free. No, having normalized “Mexicans are rapists” and “pussy grabbing” as things normal politicians say now when running for office, our press continues to see Donald Trump as a (now) normal politician at the helm of a normal political party doing the things EVERY other political party does (regardless of the fact that they don’t and never have).

Access journalism – where journalists sell their souls for access to the newsmakers they want to report on – came into its own when the New York Times’ Judith Miller went to prison rather than give up then Vice President Dick Cheney as her ultimate source when she allowed Cheney to use her to out Valerie Plame for entirely political reasons (her diplomat husband was pursuing leads regarding yellow cake uranium that would have proved America was lied by the Bush Administration into the Iraq War). Democrats don’t approach governing the way Republicans do. Consequently, they don’t need to hide the way Republicans do; they make gaining access to news makers a game of three card monte.

But, damn if our news media doesn’t step up to play.

Cynicism is the death of imagination. One doesn’t have to think or analyze a situation where one already surmises the outcome based on one’s prejudices about the players especially when the biggest prejudice of all is “both sides do it”. That is the equivalent of a short-sighted view from fifty thousand feet. Yeah, both sides are definitely doing something – but are they actually doing the same thing? And for the same reasons?

“Both sides do it” hits the ground insisting that everyone does everything for entirely political reasons. So, a racist conservative drafting legislation to make it nearly impossible for a Black person to vote is acting for the very same reasons as the Black person whose vote the racist conservative is trying to disenfranchise when they ask for help. No – that’s not the case! The racist isn’t acting politically, they’re acting criminally for a political purpose: they’re deliberately violating another American’s right to vote in order to better their chances of “winning” election.

It sure would help, wouldn’t it, if we (our news media and conservatives) stopped accepting cheating as “one way to ‘win’.”?

A Black or brown American whose right to vote has been taken away is no different from a car owner watching a car thief drive away in the car owner’s vehicle. The car thief may shout “possession is ownership!” at the top of their lungs but that doesn’t make it so. Ask the DMV. And, it’s kind of disgusting to assume – as our news media would if elections were stolen vehicles – that car thief and victim are one and the same. They’re both “doing it”.

All storytelling – whether fiction or non-fiction – works the same. How you frame a story is the story. If you frame it incorrectly – skewing reality at the start – all you’ll ever do is misrepresent the very thing you think you’re reporting on. You’ll keep insisting it’s one thing when it’s not. And then you’ll attempt to explain this misrepresentation using details that don’t mean what you say they mean.

NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell is the poster child for imagination-free reporting. She has so little imagination that she can’t imagine a way of seeing the world that isn’t hers. She clearly thinks everyone she’s reporting on thinks exactly the way she does. So, when she goes to try and explain why, say, Joe Biden does what he does, she filters it through the “here’s what I’d do” lens. Well, Kelly O is a nice person. Same as Joe Biden. But Donald Trump isn’t.

And, when Kelly O’ regularly reported on Trump when he was POTUS, she’d do the same thing – filter Trump and everything he did through a “If Trump Was Kelly O” lens. But Trump isn’t Kelly O – by a couple billion light years. Kelly O began her White House reporting every day having baked “Mexicans are rapists” and “pussy grabbing” – and a host of other bizarre, questionable, dubious and investigation-worthy things into “normal”. Trump – in Kelly O’s reporting – WAS the new normal. We might not like the things Trump did – normally – but they couldn’t possibly be illegal because 1) the president was doing them and 2) this was now normal so how could it possibly be illegal?

Kelly O would fit right in with Big Brother.

It’s not even possible with this framing for Trump to ever be a criminal because the criminality always gets normalized. Which is exactly what happened – with our news media (and “journalists” like Kelly O’Donnell) doing the criminals’ dirty work!

The plot to overthrow the results of the 2020 election didn’t just drop from the sky today, fully formed. It was a fact of life – a crime in flagrante delicto – on January 6. On that day, not only were Trump’s troglodyte foot soldiers storming the Capitol looking to hang Mike Pence and kill every Democrat they could find, but everyone who’d helped plan or pay for not just the insurrection but all the supporting political hackery also were hard at work – committing criminal acts against We The People. As the Democrats in the House and Senate feared for their lives, they didn’t realize that pretty much every single Republican also under fire was a co-conspirator then or a co-conspirator soon-to-be.

The news media hates guys like Seth Abramson. It’s hard to fathom why. Abramson’s a lawyer and journalism professor. He doesn’t do any original reporting. Rather, Abramson aggregates. He takes every bit of published news reporting he can find and adds it to the ongoing narrative. By contrast, our news media reports what it reports today then forgets virtually every last bit of it when it shows up for work tomorrow. Donald Trump a liar? That was yesterday! Maybe today – six years of data notwithstanding – he won’t lie.

“Both sides do it” journalism sees itself as the moral crusader standing against advocate journalism. Having a point of view, BSDI journalism preaches, is antithetical to journalism. It’s a journalist’s job to be neutral about literally everything – even “alternate facts”. Hey, for all a BSDI journalist knows, “alternate facts” could be real! Who are they to call bullshit “bullshit”? They’re just “journalists”.

That’s how bullshit gets equated with Truth. It’s all just one person’s opinion versus another person’s. But, the instant one reports bullshit as truth? The game’s over. Bullshit is never Truth. It’s never just plain, old, boring “truth” either. Bullshit is bullshit is bullshit – even when the person pitching it calls themselves a “journalist”.

All our news media really has to do is what Seth Abramson’s done: read their own damned work product! The Washington Post published its story about current GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy entering a meeting of GOP muckety-mucks and announcing “There’s two people I think Putin pays – Rohrbacher and Trump – swear to God!” on May 17, 2017, almost a full year after the event (it happened on June 25, 2016). That scoop should have set off a cascading fire storm of hectoring by increasingly curious journalists whose skepticism pointed them toward a host of inconsistencies that suggested everyone at the meeting had something to hide. Instead, the couple of journalists who stuck microphones in front of McCarthy’s lying face (we all KNOW Kevin’s as big a liar as Trump now!) bought McCarthy’s “I was joking!” hook, line and “boy-is-the-news-media-pathetic” sinker.

Can I tell ya? When I saw that story on Rachel Maddow’s show the other day? I thought I’d been transported to some kind of afterlife or other dimension. To see our news media finally see this story right in their wheelhouse – boy, was that gratifying! I can hardly wait to see the payoff.

And there will be a payoff.

The news media back then couldn’t imagine that Kevin McCarthy wasn’t “joking”. They couldn’t imagine that what they were confronting was an act of outright treason! The leadership of the Republican Party all agreed – it was recorded! – to keep it secret that they knew or suspected that Donald Trump, the man they were about to nominate to be their presidential candidate, posed a grave national security threat to the very country they were determined to put him in charge of. Look, I’m not a journalist – I’m just a storyteller. But, really, it’s the same thing. We all have to play by the same rules because we’re all telling stories about human beings.

And human beings behave certain ways – and don’t behave in other ways regardless of how much they want us to think they do.

How long can a journalist stare at an image like this –

– while knowing that “Putin pays Rohrbacher and Trump – swear to God!” – and still scratch their head in bewilderment at the “strange hold” Putin has over Trump. Oh, FFS – you KNOW what Putin’s hold is over Trump! You reported it yourselves! You’ve already connected the dots – you just refuse to take the next storytelling steps: adding the new information so that we can go forward instead of constantly treading water we’ve no need to tread.

It’s as frustrating as watching my football (meaning soccer – I live with a Brit) – Tottenham Hotspur move the ball from side to side and backwards on their half of the pitch instead of shifting to their damned front foot and attacking the other side’s goal with vigor and intent!

The press is the only non-governmental job mentioned in the Constitution. Our founders, flawed as they were (they didn’t actually mean “All men are created equal” the way we now understand it), made the press our democracy’s last check on power. To check power however, the one thing you cannot do is sleep with it.

When that happens – when the press gets overly cozy with the people it’s covering (so as to cover them), they lose perspective. And what little imagination they had goes right along with it. The result? Our democracy takes a bullet. It’s already taken a few. A few more will finish us. Good thing there are people now in place to stand up for democracy and the rule of law.

That would be the Democrats. The ones our news media are all so cynical about because they’ve convinced themselves that – all evidence to the contrary – “both sides do it”.

What, I’d love to know, does our news media see “both sides doing” that’s “exactly the same”. That, alas, may be the one thing alive and well inside our news media’s under-active imagination.

Photo 4839135 / Failure Imagination © Vyacheslav Zitev | Dreamstime.com

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